From Supernatural Stories 51 - 1961
SOMETHING AT THE DOOR
BY BRON FANE
Copyright © R. Lionel Fanthorpe
Used with permission
“Help me!” screamed a desperate voice . . . “it’s trying to get in!”
Val Stearman was sitting in front of the cheerful glow of a small coal fire. La Noire was watching the television with the half-interested attention of one whose thoughts are far away. There was an air of gentle quiet in the room. Val looked happily from the fire at the breath-taking beauty of the jet-haired La Noire.
“Why don’t they put something decent on?” he said, partly to himself, partly to her, and partly to an army of television producers. “This is about the fourth time we’ve had this documentary!”
La Noire smiled.
“I believe the greatest education theorists believe in repetition,” she answered.
“We don’t pay four pounds a year for education,” snorted Val, “we pay four pounds a year for entertainment!” He was on his favourite hobby horse, and he walked across the room, pulling a singularly ungentlemanly face at the bland announcer who was doing his best to edify the vast, invisible audience. La Noire uncurled gracefully from her chair and switched off. As the sound of the set died away they caught the tail-end of a ‘phone ringing.
“That’s a bit of luck,” remarked Val, “we’d have missed that call! Can’t hear it over the old goggle-box!” He stepped from the living room to the hall in two quick strides and picked up the receiver.
“Val Stearman speaking,” he said.
There was a startled gasp from the other end.
“Hello?” he said.
La Noire caught that edge of interest in his voice and joined him beside the phone. The voice on the other end was female, young female, Stearman guessed, and from that startled gasp she sounded frightened — very frightened.
The thought of rescuing a damsel in distress, even in the drab, unchivalrous 20th century, still held a certain appeal for Stearman. He ran one powerful hand through the curly black hair that was just beginning to tinge with grey at the temples. It was a mannerism, a gesture with him. The voice of the frightened woman on the other end came through again This time it was more than a startled gasp, it was coherent.
“Are you the Mr. Stearman — on ‘The Globe’ — who —?”
“Yes, I am,” agreed Val. It wasn’t the first time that an interesting adventure had started that way. It wasn’t the first time that the ‘phone had rung and some complete stranger had said:
“Are you the Val Stearman of ‘The Daily Globe’?” He recalled one or two instances when just such a beginning had marked the start of a hair-raising series of events.
“Those — those stories about you — are they true?” asked the girl.
“About half of them are,” answered Val, “probably less — allow for exaggeration. But if you’re in trouble, or whether you need help — that part is true.”
She heaved a sigh of relief, and he could almost feel the receiver vibrating . . . .
“You’ve got to help me!” she said.
“If you will tell us where you are we’ll see what we can do.”
Her voice suddenly turned to a scream.
“It’s trying to get in! It’s trying to get in!” There was a clatter as the receiver dropped. Val rattled the rest savagely for several minutes. The he called the Exchange.
“Operator! I want that call traced — it’s very urgent!”
“I’m sorry sir, we are not able to trace a call for a private subscriber.”
“You just start tracing it, while I call the police,” said Stearman, “I’ll have all the authority you need in about five minutes!”
“But I cannot give you the information until we have police authority.”
“You’ll have it,” said Stearman, “For heaven’s sake hurry, it’s extremely urgent!”
He got through to the yard and heard the quiet efficient voice of the officer on the switchboard.
“This is Stearman of ‘The Globe’, I want you to get me through to Inspector Clive Richardson at once. Tell him its very urgent.”
“Inspector Richardson, sir. Yes.” There was the sound of a muffled click and then another.
“Richardson speaking,” boomed a voice like a foghorn.
“Hello, Clive, this is Val,” said Stearman.
“What’s new?” asked Richardson.
“Got cut off in the middle of a call for help. I need your authority to have the call traced.”
“O.K.,” answered the Inspector, “you shall have it. I’ll get my sergeant on to the Exchange right away.” Richardson and Stearman had worked together before. They made a good team. Richardson was one of the newer police inspectors. Young, full of drive and initiative, and with that rare common sense which enabled him to cut red tape when it produced results.
Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again.
“Clive here, Val,” came the Familiar foghorn blast in the reporter’s ear.
“Did you find it?” demanded Val.
“Yes — we’ve got it. Pretty easy, as a matter of fact. It was a trunk call.”
“I thought it sounded a bit faint. Where was it from?”
“Yorkshire?” echoed Stearman, “That’s quite a call! A young woman sounded in trouble — surely she should have called the local police? Why call me?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” answered the Inspector. “But if she sounded as desperate as you say she did, something ought to be done pretty quickly. Tell me again exactly what happened.”
“By a stroke of luck, we’d just switched off the tele, and we heard the tale end of this ring on the phone dying away. . . . I went to answer it, and La Noire followed me almost straight away. When I said ‘This is Val Stearman’ there was a little startled gasp, as if she had been plucking up her courage to ring for a long time and had just got around to doing it. Now that it had actually happened she seemed a bit overwhelmed. She asked me if I was the Val Stearman of the ‘Daily Globe’ in case she had got the wrong man. . . .”
“Obviously someone who doesn’t know you, then?”
“I would say so. I suppose she heard of me by reputation,” said Stearman.
“You never did suffer much from modesty, did you?” said the Inspector. Val could almost hear him chuckling over the phone. “Go on,” said Richardson, “she asked you if you were the Val Stearman, and then what?”
“Then she said she needed help,” said the big journalist-adventurer, “then she screamed something like ‘Help me! It’s trying to get in!’ Then there was a clatter and the phone went dead. I rattled the receiver rest, then asked the Exchange to trace the call. They said they wouldn’t without police authority, so I got through to you, and that’s it. Let’s have the exact location. . . .”
“All right,” returned Richardson, “here it is . . . it came from Black Moat Grange —”
“ That sounds promising,” said Stearman, “Black Moat Grange, eh? Where the devil is that?”
“Well, it’s in the middle of the North Yorkshire moors. You know there are two ‘Castletons’. One in Derbyshire, and the other in Yorkshire — it’s about six miles south-west of the Yorkshire Castleton.”
“Oh, I know! You get there between Guisborough and Whitby, on the A171,” rejoined Val, “you turn off about seven miles out of Guisborough.”
“That’s the place,” agreed the Inspector.
“And after Castleton, where’s the next call?”
“You have to keep driving south,” said Richardson.
“Your best way would be to go up — if you’re going, and I expect you are, knowing you! — through Doncaster, Selby, York, then on to Malton and Pickering — Malton’s on the A64 out of York and Pickering is on the A169.” Richardson was an extremely experienced motorist and had a phenomenal memory.
“At Pickering you turn pretty well due west till you get into Sinnington. From Sinnington you go north again up to Rosedale Abbey. Alternatively you can go from Pickering almost up to Kirby Moorside and then straight off north until you pass the junction of the Kedholme road and the Sinnington road in a ‘Y’ formation. Just past that there’s a road off to the left. That must be the road that will take you into Black Moat Grange. That’s the only place it does lead. It’s snowed up in the winter — pretty regularly, I gather.”
“You’ve had your map boys on the job pretty smartly,” said Stearman.
“All part of the service!” said Clive, “If you will go sticking your neck in what doesn’t concern you, I suppose I shall have to help you!”
But there was a lot of good humour behind the banter, for Clive Richardson and Val Stearman had worked together on many occasions.
“You doing anything official about this?” asked Val.
“Yes, I got on to the local men. They’re sending a constable down to see if anything is wrong. You might contact him when you get up there, if you’re definitely going?”
“Yes, I’m going,” answered Val. “There’s nothing in the office that won’t keep. I’d better get things moving — be seeing you, Clive.”
“OK” said Clive and hung up.
Val replaced the receiver for an instant, picked it up again, and dialed “The Globe”. The switchboard put him through to Mac — Mac the irate and irrascible Scots editor, who was more like a music hall conception of a Scots editor than a real Scots editor had a right to be.
“Stearman here,” said Val.
“I might ha’ known! I might ha’ known! There’s a pile o’ work on the desk big enough to weigh down three men Stearman rings up to say either he wants some money in advance, or be wants a week’s holiday so that he can go and investigate something! Let’s hear it! Come on!”
“Of all the pleasant men I know Mac, my dear old friend and chief you’re the finest. ‘the noblest and the best’!” Val was smiling broadly at La Noire as he spoke.
“Flattery’ll get you nowhere, even if it’s true,” said Mac, “Now, come on! What is it?”
“Your sweet, gentle kindness, your unfailing patience —”
“Will you cut out the flannel and get an wi’ it! I’m in no mood to play games! What do you want? Money or time off?”
“Such brash talk!” said Stearman. “It almost injures me! If I were a more sensitive and delicate plant I could not endure the blast of the scorching sun of your anger.”
“We’ve got a middle-aged gas bag who writes poetry for the sloppy page — I don’t want you to do that!” snorted Mac savagely. “If you don’t come to the point in two minutes I’ll fire ye!”
“You’ve set yourself a problem! Seriously, Mac, there’s what looks like the makings of something good up in Yorkshire. I received a phone call for help a short while ago which was cut off in the middle. I got on to the Yard, Richardson contacted the local men, traced the call, and I’m leaving myself in about five minutes.”
Mac pricked his ears up.
“Sounds good! Best o’ luck, lad! You’ve got full backing. Take what time you like!” Beneath his personna of irrascibility Mac had a heart of gold and a great deal of newspaper skill. He knew the kind of features that kept the circulation figures mounting. He knew that Stearman had a nose for news. He knew, too that his star reporter would be far more use on the track of the Yorkshire story.
Val hung up and turned to La Noire.
“Pack the week-end bag, honey, we’re travelling!”
“It’s packed,” she smiled, “as soon as that call came through I knew we’d be going somewhere!”
“That is what I call real foresight and co-operation!” applauded her husband. “La Noire, my darling, you’re a wonder woman! Come on, let’s go!”
They were five minutes from the garage. There were no cruising taxies — Val was annoyed. This might be an important affair — or it might be a wild goose chase. After all, he asked himself, what had he got to go on? A long distance phone call, and those tantalising words — “Help me! It’s trying to get in!” What was trying to get in? What was the peril up at Black Moat Grange on the lonely North Yorkshire moors?
* * *
The Stearmans owned an exceptionally powerful roadster and with Val behind the wheel the car could do practically everything except talk. Now they were racing north through the night. The twin headlights were cutting swathes of light through the darkness. It was approaching ten o’clock and the coolness of the early autumn evening was making its presence felt.
La Noire turned on the heater. A few moments later it began to rain, and powerful wipers cut a rhythmic track across the screen. Val eased his foot off the accelerator until they had slowed to a steady seventy-five.
“I don’t like these sudden showers,” he said. “They make the roads more treacherous than ice, sometimes.”
So the great car raced further and further north until the 162 miles separating London and Doncaster had been covered.
“Let’s do a bit of navigating,” said Val, “I’m not quite so sure of my way here.”
“You want the A19,” informed La Noire. Val pulled sharply on to it, and they drove through Bentley and Askern, up into Selby, and from there into the fine old city of York.
“Which is going to be the best road?” inquired Val. “I don’t fancy tackling those ‘B’ roads, even though they are a more direct route. It would be quicker to stick on that route Richardson gave us.”
“Yes, that was the A64 into Melton,” said La Noire, Val swung right into the A64 and the 18 miles separating Melton from York flashed by like the symbols on a one-armed-bandit, as the speedometer swung up to its top register. They went from Melton up through Pickering and turned due west through Sinnington into Kedholme.
“North here,” instructed La Noire.
There was a squeal from the powerful brakes as the big roadster hurled itself over the wild, desolate moorland road.
It had been midnight when they reached Doncaster, and the remaining hundred miles between Doncaster and the north Yorkshire moors had been covered in just over an hour and a half. Val looked at the dashboard clock, as he eased his toe off the accelerator and began searching for the entrance to Black Moat Grange.
“Even Dick Turpin couldn’t have done his famous ride to York much quicker than that,” said Stearman, and as he spoke there was the grin of the highwayman, the buccaneer, the soldier-of-fortune, on his face — for Stearman was all these things. He was all these things rolled into one, a kind of 20th century Robin Hood born too late for the great Age of Chivalry and Romance, and putting up a gallant, though somewhat Quixotic, struggle against the drabness and the urbanity of the civilised world. Forms and red tape and bureaucracy were anathema to Val Stearman. He loved freedom, wide skies, and open moorland. He liked broad, untrammelled oceans and vast continents, he liked straight fast smooth roads, they gave him a sense of exhilaration and power. He liked untamed mountain peaks and mysterious valleys, acres of trackless forest.
Civilization with its prison of conformity and its compound of respectability had very little appeal for him. His train of thought was suddenly cut short.
“That must be the signpost, darling,” said La Noire.
Val followed her pointing finger and stabbed his toe on the brakes. The board had practically fallen from its upright, and the upright itself was hanging in a haphazard fashion.
It pointed to a dirt road, one which ran between the low stone walls bordering the moor. It was no easy matter coaxing the roadster along that road. Her twin carburetors and eight powerful cylinders were made for high speed work, and this low-gear crawling seemed to make the great car as irritable as it made Stearman. Then they saw lights approaching.
“This is going to be handy!” exclaimed Stearman. “We’ve only got six inches each side as it is!”
“Somebody’ll have to back,” said La Noire, reasonably.
“Well, I’m not going to!” said Stearman, “I’ve come nearly a mile down this blasted road now — we haven’t even passed a gateway!”
The two cars stopped. Stearman waited for the other driver to switch off his headlights first. Apparently the other driver had the same idea! Val stepped out with his headlights full on and walked carefully round the illuminated area so that he could take the other driver by surprise. It was only as he stepped out of the dazzling light that had been shining directly on his car that he realised that their path was blocked by the police.
He tapped gently on the police driver’s window and tipped off La Noire to dip his own headlights. She did so, and the police driver turned.
“My name’s Stearman,” said Val. “Inspector Richardson told you I was coming.”
“Oh, good evening sir. Yes, of course. We’ve just been up to investigate. I’m afraid you’ve had a long ride for nothing. . . .”
“You must have been there some considerable time,” said Stearman, “It’s taken me over three hours to get here from London.”
“Well, we couldn’t get there immediately,” said the driver, “and when we did there was a rather lengthy explanation. I’ll tell you all about it.”
There was another uniformed officer in the car.
“Come in and sit down,” he invited, “it will be more comfortable than talking through the window.”
“I’ve left my wife in my own car,” said Val.
“Bring her along!” said the policeman, and Val beckoned La Noire towards him, the constable opened the rear door and they sat down.
“We got the call from inspector Richardson,” said the police driver, “and we went to investigate — although it seemed very odd that an emergency call from our district should have gone down to London!”
“Aye, it did that!” said the other policeman. He was obviously a Yorkshire-born policeman and there was fascination in his accent, which only a Stanley Holloway could ever impersonate properly.
“It was like this — we got the call, and it was a 28-mile drive to start with. We could have sent the Kedholme constable on his bicycle, but it seemed a devil of a ride, and we had the car out. . . .”
Val was getting a little bit impatient.
“And,” he asked, “what happened?”
“Well, the house is owned by Sir Silas Grafton,” said the policeman. “Sir Silas had an elder brother Julian who was killed in Transylvania on a hunting expedition, ten or fifteen years ago — maybe more, I remember reading about it.”
“Aye, I remember when Sir Julian got killed!” said the other constable. “It were a long time back —”
“Sir Julian had a daughter,” went on the policeman, “but unfortunately —” he tapped his forehead significantly.
“Who told you this?” asked Val. “Silas?”
“Yes — I spoke to Sir Silas when I went up there.”
“I see,” said Stearman. His eyes had narrowed, he was remembering things about Julian Grafton, and his hunting expeditions in Transylvania. There had been aspects of Sir Julian’s death that Stearman hadn’t liked. He knew Transylvania well . . . but he said nothing for the present.
“Sir Silas has looked after the estate for this unfortunate girl, and of course if she is proved insane she will not inherit when she comes of age.”
“Doesn’t it sound suspicious to you?” asked Val.
“Does sound like one of the Victorian melodramas,” said the constable. “But those sort of things don’t happen nowadays, sir. Wicked uncles and all that sort of thing.”
“I wouldn’t be quite so sure of that,” answered Stearman.
“I talked to him pretty thoroughly,” said the constable, “and I think he’s on the level. I think the unfortunate girl is mad, She suffers from some kind of persecution mania.”
“I see,” said Val. “That would account for it, I suppose. Did they account for the telephone call she made to me?”
“She seems to think that her father was not really killed in Transylvania. She seems to think he comes back in some other form. A horrible form.”
“What do you mean?” asked Val. It was obvious that the policeman was stalling. He hardly liked to commit himself to words. “Do you know the werewolf legend?”
“Yes,” said Stearman, “I do!”
“Well,. she thinks her father was bitten by a werewolf and has turned into one. Did you ever hear such rubbish?”
Stearman looked at the policeman narrowly, and shook his head.
“No,” he answered, “I don’t know when I last heard such rubbish as that.”
La Noire looked at him in wonderment. Normally Val would argue against the devil himself, because on more than one occasion he had not only seen vampires and werewolves, but had fought with them. . . . Then, in a telepathic flash it dawned on her, he did not altogether trust this constable. The man looked genuine enough — but? There was the awkward question. . . .
“So you see, you’ve pretty well had a wasted journey, sir,” said the police driver.
“Yes, it looks as if I have. Is there anywhere in your village I can stay the night?”
“Well, Kedholme’s about the nearest — very pleasant little inn there. They’ll be able to put you up, I’m sure.”
“The only thing that bothers me now,” said Val, “is how I’m going to be able to turn round,”
“There’s a gateway a little way up here, I’ll reverse a bit and you’ll be able to back round into that.”
“Thanks,” said Val. The police car backed up. He followed it for twenty-five or thirty yards, and the constable indicated a gap in the wall. A pool of darkness lay beyond.
“There you are — just back in there. . . .”
Val began reversing slowly into the gateway. La Noire casually, more from force of habit than anything else, glanced over her shoulder to see that there were no obstructions behind. Among her many other uncanny powers, Val Stearman’s beautiful, enigmatic wife had the power to see in the dark. She was a nyctalops. To her the darkest night was as clear as day when she chose to exercise that power.
She gave a sudden cry of warning and snatched at the hand brake. Val was already jamming the footbrake hard down. That warning cry had been enough. It was instinctive reaction.
The police driver looked out to see why he had stopped.
“You’ll have to go back a little further,” he called out, “You won’t get round there!”
La Noire whispered:
“It’s a trick. There’s a disused mineshaft two feet behind our rear wheels!”
“So they are phoneys,” He whispered. He put the roadster into first, and pulled out in front of the police car.
Stearman’s car was equipped with bumpers of his own design. They were thick steel, and higher and wider than normal, There were occasions when he had to use his car for unorthodox purposes. His life depended on being able to crash through obstructions on occasion.
Silently he slid into reverse again, and revving up the powerful engine with a mighty roar he jerked the clutch out. The big forty-horse-plus roadster’s fenders smashed in the front of the police car as though it had been putty. There were shouts of surprise and pain from behind, and then Stearman was out of the car and, wrenching open the door of the damaged police car, he yanked out the driver like an angry dentist pulling a small, rootless tooth out of diseased gums. The driver finished up against the stone wall, for Stearman was well over six feet, as broad as a door and as tough as old English oak.
The driver lay helpless and unconscious where he had fallen. The second man was fumbling for a gun when Val turned and locked an arm round his throat, and he was dragged out of the car like toothpaste from a tube. Stearman’s left came down on the gun wrist with a chopping motion and the automatic fell with a soft thud in the dirt road.
Val put on a hammer lock, and the pseudo-policeman gave a screech of pain and fear.
“All right. What’s all this about?” demanded Stearman. “I want to know, and I want to know fast.”
His voice was quiet, deadly quiet. Those who knew him knew that this was when he was at his most dangerous, like the legendary ‘Whispering Smith’ of Texan fame.
“So you’d drop me down a disused mine shaft?” hissed Stearman.
“How the devil did you know it was there?” grated the other.
“Never mind that! I want to know what your game is? I’m asking the questions, sonny boy, and you’re going to answer! Or I’ll tear your arm off and beat you over the head with it.”
He shoved the merciless back-hammer on a little tighter. The pseudo-policeman gave a little screech of pain.
“I won’t talk,” he gasped.
“Look,” said Stearman, “I don’t like hurting people, but you just tried to kill me. I want to find out why. I want to know what’s going on at that blasted house. You’re no more a policeman than you are a Prime Minister. Now, what’s going on?”
The first man, lying unconscious by the wall, began to stir slightly. La Noire prodded him with one dainty foot. In her right hand Val Stearman’s revolver was held steady as a rock, pointed unerringly at the inert form by the wall.
“Don’t try it!” La Noire’s husky, exciting voice was just as menacing as her husband’s. “I can shoot awfully well for a girl.”
The form by the wall stopped stirring and went inert again.
“Come on,” urged Val, “I haven’t got all night!”
“I daren’t tell you — he’ll kill me!”
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll kill you,” said Val. “Who are you most afraid of — me or him? Don’t forget that I’ve got you and he hasn’t!”
“Me and Jack there, he met us in a little cafe in Leeds and hired us to do a job . . .”
“Hired you to do a job?”
“He said he wanted us to come up to the Hall as chauffeur and butler, he said there were some other unusual things to be done. We both got records, you see, and we thought he was perhaps one o’ these Big Boss fellas. We thought there was going to be plenty in it for us. He said there would be.”
“I see,” answered Stearman, “he hired you for some criminal purpose and didn’t tell you what at the time.”
“I think he just wanted us standing by,” said the other, still wincing from that mighty back hammer that Stearman was holding with effortless ease. “Will you let go of my arm, mister?”
“Not till I’ve got all the information I want. Then what happened?”
“There’s a girl up at the House, a little red-head, pretty little kid, about eighteen or twenty, I suppose. The bloke who employed us is her guardian.”
“I see,” said Stearman. “So that part of the story was true?”
“You could easily have checked on that. If you’d gone back to the village and said that two coppers had told you something and found it wasn’t true, you’d have known they wasn’t coppers.”
“That makes sense,” agreed Stearman. “Go on from there, I’m still listening . . .”
“He wants to drive this girl mad — or kill her. He wanted us to help. This werewolf legend — he’s playing on that. She thinks her father was bitten by a werewolf and is coming back as a werewolf. When the moon is full, her uncle, Sir Silas, he dresses up and goes circling round the place, or gets one of us to . . .”
“I think,” said Stearman, “that someone who deliberately tries to frighten another into insanity or death is about the most despicable kind of individual there is. You are accessories before the fact, and are likely to face life imprisonment or even a capital charge.”
“Yes, I suppose we are!”
Stearman let go of the man’s arm. He was a cheap little crook screeching like a frightened rat as soon as anything went wrong. The other man moved very slowly and carefully and sat upright by the wall.
“I think you’ve busted my ribs,” he said to Val angrily.
“I wouldn’t care if I’d broken your neck!” snapped Val. “You were trying to break mine! I’ve a good mind to pitch the pair of you down that mine shaft!” There was such anger blazing in his eyes that just for a second they thought he meant it.
“No, please,” gasped the man who had told him the story. “I’ve told you everything I know, honest!”
“You’ve got a yellow streak in you so wide you could drive a bus down it,” said Stearman. “Get the rope out of the boot, honey, we’ll tie these two birds of prey up!”
La Noire put the gun away and went for the rope.
With fingers of steel Stearman lashed up the two thoroughly subdued pseudo-policemen and, fastening them together, bundled them into the back of the police car.
Where did you get those uniforms?” he suddenly demanded. There was a sullen silence.
“Don’t waste my time,” urged Stearman. “Come on! The uniforms!”
“The girl telephoned,” said one of the men dourly. “We weren’t suspicious at first, we thought everything was going to be all right — then things went a bit wrong. We had nearly convinced them the girl was mad, then she got over her fright, and talked sensibly, and we could see them beginning to doubt us. In the course of the conversation one of them said they’d had a report from London, said somebody was comin’ up here — some bloke called Stearman.”
“Yes,” said Val. “I’m Stearman.”
“Soon as we saw your lights coming up the drive we stopped at this point and waited.”
“I see,” said Val, “so this thing was calmly and coolly premeditated, was it? You were going to assist me to back round into that mine shaft? Make it look like an accident, took the wrong turn in the dark down the back lane. Could have happened to anybody! That’s lovely! That’s just wonderful! Makes me feel very kindly disposed towards you.” He drew back his hand in a threatening gesture. “I’d like to tear you two apart! I don’t want to hear a sound from either of you — not a sound.”
He tore a strip off one of the police uniforms. “Come on, handsome,” he said to the first one, “let’s have a look at your teeth!”
Stearman gagged him firmly and expertly with the torn strip of uniform. Then he repeated the process on the second man.
“You just lie there real nice and quiet and think about your trial!”
“How are we going to get up to the house?”’ asked La Noire “their car is still blocking the road.”
“Yes I know,” agreed Val, “it’s pretty well immobilised. They won’t be able to drive it far with the state the front is in after we caught it with the fender. But I can’t get past them.”
“We can always push it down the mine shaft,” said La Noire sweetly.
“Yes, we could at that,” conceded Val, and he looked and sounded in deadly earnest. “After all,” said La Noire, “that’s what they were going to do to us.”
A choked gasp of agony sounded from under one of the gags.
“Might be a good idea at that,” pursued Val, “because their employer up at the house will be expecting to hear a crash. He won’t know whether it’s their car or ours that’s gone in. . . .”
“That’s true,” said La Noire, “he won’t!”
“Then if we make our way up to the house, he’ll probably think it’s his own people coming back.” Val considered the problem in thoughtful silence for a few moments. As he did so the two bound, helpless crooks looked at him with helpless terror-filled faces. They had never met a man on the side of law and order who fought in quite the same way that Stearman fought. Up till now their miserable, twisted lives had been lived without very much respect for the Law. They knew it was hidebound by regulations. Policemen kept their hands off, even when there was extreme provocation. The worst criminal was accorded the same high standard of British justice as the most noble peer of the realm. They, as representatives of the criminal class, could do as they wished to their unfortunate victims. They could murder, they could pillage, they could steal, and the worst that would happen would be the civilized processes of the Law. Now here was Stearman — something entirely new, something stark, something ruthless. A man who had his own rough-and-ready standard of justice when he considered it was necessary. He looked towards the two bound men and then towards the mine shaft.
He removed one of the gags.
“What happened to the policemen whose uniforms you stole — are they alive or dead?”
“They’re unconscious. We didn’t kill ‘em, honest we didn’t, so help me God!”
“That decides it then,’ said Stearman, “we’ll leave the car here!” The terrified crook heaved a great sigh of relief. “If I find those two policemen dead,” said Stearman “I shall come back here and arrange a very nasty accident, all for you!” The tone of his voice left no possible doubt in the minds of the two men that he meant what he said.
“How are we going to get up to the house, then?” whispered La Noire.
“We’ll walk up,” said her husband, “very quietly! Sooner or later Sir Silas is going to realise that something has gone wrong with his little scheme---he may even come down and investigate. Certainly he’ll leave the house.”
“I wonder if there’s any more men on guard,” said La Noire.
“If these specimens are anything to go by, I don’t think we should have much trouble,” said Val. “Have you got my gun?”
“Yes,” she said.
“I’ll have it back. Get yours out.” She produced a lighter weapon, a beautifully balanced little .32.
“Right,” said Val, “keep it handy!”
With La Noire picking out the track unerringly with those wonderful night-seeing eyes of hers they swiftly covered the track till they reached the house. It stood out a starker, blacker thing against the night sky like a vast, sinister beast of prey. The wings of the house seemed to spread like the wings of some gaunt bird, like an evil, black owl, its flying buttresses like the claws or talons of some foul harbinger of death and evil.
La Noire, hypersensitive to atmosphere, shuddered instinctively.
“I don’t like it, Val,” she whispered, “dreadful place!”
“The ideal setting for a villainous old man who’s trying to drive a girl out of her mind,” agreed Stearman, “God, it makes me shudder! And I thought I was tough.”
They approached the house slowly and carefully.
“Watch out for booby traps,” he warned La Noire, “If you see anything even slightly suspicious stop at once and we’ll approach it with the greatest possible caution.”
“It looks empty,” said La Noire, “deserted almost. . . .”
“It’s not,” said Val, “he must be there somewhere. I would say under-inhabited rather than uninhabited.”
La Noire nodded in the darkness. They reached the enormous iron-studded oak door.
“Now we’ll employ a little subterfuge,” said Val, “listen, darling. I want you to ring that bell, or thunder on the door with the gun butt if necessary, create a nice diversion here while I get in at one of the windows at the side or the back.”
“Take care,” whispered La Noire, “if this Silas is as dangerous as his men we have a worthy antagonist here!”
“I think we can handle it,” her husband whispered, and looking at his mighty shoulders and strong, resolute face, La Noire felt confident.
Val Stearman disappeared into the darkness at the side of the house as silently as a cat. La Noire gave him ten seconds’ start and then seized the heavy, old, wrought-iron handle of the bell pull.
The sound of the sonorous chimes boomed away in the depth of the eerie old building, echoing and re-echoing as if they would shake the walls loose from their foundations.
After what seemed an eternity she heard footsteps. They sounded reasonably normal, not the slow, dragging steps of the aged, or the shuffling sound of a deformed thing, but the steps of a normal man. Perhaps not a man in the prime of life, for they did not come very swiftly, but they had a reassuring, human sound about them.
Some of the tension began to evaporate a little. La Noire slid the deadly little .32 automatic into the pocket of her costume. The door opened with a time-worn creak of its hinges. The man who was framed in the aperture was holding a candle, on an old-fashioned, silvered stick. He was sheltering the flame against the moorland wind. La Noire looked at him for a moment uncertainly, he was slightly above average height, but not by any means as tall as Val Stearman. The shoulders were narrowed and bent as though from much poring over heavy tomes. He wore thick, tortoiseshell rimmed spectacles. The eyes behind them peered out like the eyes of a watchman behind the transom in the door of a disreputable night club.
“What do ye want?” His voice was hoarse, and cracked, as though he suffered from some respiratory trouble brought on by lack of exercise and years of living away from the light of the sun and the health-giving freshness of the moorland air.
“I have come to speak to Sir Silas.”
“You are speaking to him,” said the old man.
La Noire hardly knew what to do,
“It’s a funny time of night to come calling, isn’t it? What do you want anyway? Why have you come to see me?”
“It’s extremely important, and very confidential,” said La Noire. She was groping desperately for an idea, somehow she wanted to get invited into that house. She looked again and saw the greedy, avaricious old face with its shifty eyes.
“I can’t talk out here,” she said, “there’s no knowing who may be about. I’ve seen your two men in the road — I used to work with them.”
“Oh, you’ve been in with Jack, have you? He did mention having a girl at one time.”
Had she taken the old man off his guard, or was he playing some sinister double bluff on her. She didn’t know, she had to chance it. Anyway, she had the .32. It was a useful little gun.
“You’d better come inside then, if you’re one of Jack’s friends.” The old man turned his back on her and began walking down the corridor the way he had come.
“Why did you come at this time of night,” he repeated as he opened the door on the left of him. He preceded her inside and motioned her to a seat. The furniture was old. There was the stale smell of disuse over everything.
“Jack told me about the girl,” said La Noire. “He said he figured you could use some extra help. Maybe you needed a woman.”
“Jack’s got a good head on him,” commended old Silas, “yes — you look pretty capable. We’re playing for big stakes here, you know.”
Have I really taken him in? Wondered La Noire, or is this just some elaborate build up.
“Did you see Jack as you came up the road?” There was suspicion behind the old man’s question.
“Yes, I did,” she answered. “He told me to come straight up to the house, he said he had some business to finish. There was another car there, a man and a woman in it. . . .”
“I see. I see,” murmured the old man, and gave an evil anticipatory laugh. “Don’t jump if you hear a sudden loud crash,” he said, “it’ll only be a loose boulder falling down a mine shaft!” La Noire shuddered.
So far at least, she considered, she had got her story across. It had been an extremely flimsy story, but it had apparently worked.
From the depth of the house she heard a faint movement, the old man heard it too, and cocked one ear up, like an inquisitive old bird listening for its prey.
“Did you hear anything?” His voice grated on her ears, suspicion was back in it now. La Noire knew that to deny that she had heard anything would increase that suspicion.
“We’re playing for big stakes,” said the old fellow, “we can’t afford to take chances.” He looked at her again and there was even more suspicion on his face.
“When you saw Jack,” he questioned, “what was he wearing?” La Noire laughed.
“This you’ll hardly believe, but he was wearing a police uniform!”
The old man gave a little sigh of relief.
“That was Jack,” he said, “that was Jack! Well, seeing you’re going to be in with us you’d better come with me and we’ll investigate that noise. It may be only a loose board or a rat, the place is full of them I’ve seen rats here nearly two feet long! D’you know what they say down in Cornwall — ‘Rats is bogies, and bogies is rats’. Maybe they’re right. But these rats seem to go with the house. There have always been rats at Black Moat Grange.”
“Why do they call it ‘Black Moat Grange’?” asked La Noire, “I saw no moat.”
“Ah that was filled in years ago, but the name still lingers. One of the Graftons used to dispose of his enemies in that moat. That was in the good old days when the world wasn’t overrun by snooping policemen! And nosey reporters!” La Noire suppressed a deep inward chuckle.
The old man was leading the way down the corridor again in the direction of the sound. From upstairs came the sound of muffled sobbing. She forced herself to sound savage and brutal, though it was a great effort of will, when she wanted to run upstairs and comfort the terrified girl.
“Is that the kid I’m to help look after?”
“That’s her. Snivelling little wretch!” said the old fellow. “She’ll soon crack! Another week or a fortnight should do it! She saw the monster to-night — so she thought! Did Jack tell you?”
“Yes — Jack told me!”
“Good scheme. isn’t it?” he muttered. “Foolproof! I was surprised when those two policemen almost believed her. They gave me a dirty look, but I soon dealt with them!”
“Where are they?” asked La Noire casually.
“Trussed up in’ the cellar and they’ll stay there as far as I’m concerned,” said old Silas. “Starvation’s as good a way to kill ‘em as any other. It’s quiet you know and it makes no mess!”
La Noire could hardly believe her ears. She had met evil men before, but for sheer savage, casual brutality Silas Grafton seemed to take an awful lot of beating. The eager note of anticipation in his voice when he had envisaged their car plunging down the mine shaft and dismissed it lightly as a ‘loose boulder’. The way in which he was prepared to allow two policemen to starve to death in his cellar. . . .
“Won’t they be missed?” asked La Noire. “Won’t it be better to dispose of them swiftly? I mean — if the place was searched before they were dead, and they were found?”
“They wouldn’t be able to find their way down to those cellars! It’s a secret door!” confided the old man, “it’s not an ordinary cellar!”
“I still think you’re making a mistake,” persisted La Noire, “they’ve got good techniques of searching now, you know. Radar and sonar, and they measure a place inside and out and sound all the floors and if they think there’s a room down below they’ll blast to it if they can’t get there any other way.”
“Do you think they’d be as thorough as that?” asked the old man. He was laughing up his sleeve. La Noire could sense it.
“There’s something you haven’t told me,” she said.
“Of course there is!” said the old man, “that first loose boulder is going to be followed by another! The shaft is so deep they’ll never know what happened.”
“But the car tracks will tell them what happened!” He was laughing away to himself.
So that was it, thought La Noire. Having disposed of Val and herself the police car was to be jettisoned down the mine shaft. It would take months to get to the wreckage. She continued to follow the old man down the corridor.
“I haven’t heard those boulders crashing yet,” she said, enigmatically.
“No, it’s time they had,” said the old fellow, “it’s definitely time they had. Jack and the other lad should have been back here by now!”
“Let me deal with those policemen for you,” urged La Noire. She was acting, and La Noire was a consummate actress.
“Do you think you’re strong enough to strangle them?”
“I could garrotte them — I could manage that with a rope?” said La Noire, trying to make her voice sound as evil as possible.
“You’re a woman after me own heart,” said the old man, “I wish I was thirty years younger! We’d have made a good pair, eh? Like Caesar and Lucretia Borgia all over again, eh? Never mind! Never too late, so they say. My money and your brains! Makes me feel I’m only just beginning, makes me feel almost young again! I like a woman wi’ a bit o’ spirit! There’s a good bit o’ rope in the cellar. That’ll do fine. I’ve had enough of looking for this noise. It was probably only a rat anyway.”
He opened a sliding panel in the wall of the corridor down which they had walked. A flight of dark stone steps led downwards.
“You’ll find them at the bottom there. I’ll leave the panel open for ye.”
La Noire was in two minds what to do. Could anybody be as incredibly evil as this old man? So savagely murderous — could they? Could anybody be gullible enough to believe that a woman who had just stepped in casually out of the darkness of the night was really in league with his evil companions? He had had no proof whatsoever. Was he so set in his evil purposes that he had no guile or cunning left? Had he become so fanatical in his desire to gain his own ends that he had lost all his skill? Had he ever had any skill?
These, and a thousand other questions whirled swiftly around in La Noire’s mind as she stepped rather uncertainly towards the open panel.
“Go on, go on, they’re at the bottom. There’s a well in the middle, the bodies can go down there and we’ll cement it in tomorrow.”
He might have been talking about old rags or discarded beer bottles. Human life meant absolutely nothing to him. La Noire made up her mind. She stepped through the panel and began descending the steps. A hideous cackling laugh rang out behind her, and with a resounding crash the panel returned to its place.
“You can’t fool me,” screeched the old fellow, “do you think I was born yesterday?”
She heard the footsteps and the laughter fading away down the passage.
Just for one moment she was gripped by blind, unreasoning panic. She wanted to crouch helplessly on those steps and scream out for Val to come and save her, to take this crafty, evil old man in his two hands and break him over his knee like a twig. To snap him as a horse snaps straw between his teeth. Then she realised that one of the reasons for the suddenness of the old man’s attack had been to make her disclose whether or not she had a companion.
To have screamed for help would have brought Val running — probably into another trap!
She made her way slowly down the steps. Had it not been for her unusual faculty of night vision she would have fallen a dozen times. That was one point in which the old man had miscalculated. He had not realised that she was a nyctalops. In many places the stairs crumbled almost to nothing, but she managed to make the descent in safety.
At the bottom of the steps bound, gagged and helpless, shivering on the cold, damp stones — for they were protected by nothing but their underwear — she found two sturdy Yorkshire police constables. She loosened the gag from the nearest policeman. He sucked in lungfuls of air.
“Ee, lass, thou’s a reet welcome sight,” he said. “How did tha get downstairs wi’out falling?”
“I can see in the dark,” said La Noire, as she loosened the gag from the other custodian of the law. “Tell me, what happened to you?”
“We came in response to a message from the Yard, from Inspector Richardson —“
”Oh, yes, Clive Richardson. We know him well. It was my husband who received the telephone message — Stearman, Val Stearman. . . .”
“That’s reet, that’s what we were told. Apparently your husband has a reputation as a psychic adventurer. His name’s been connected with all sorts of things both here and on the Continent. This poor girl believes there’s a werewolf after her. Her father was killed in Transylvania, she thinks her father was bitten by a wolf, and that he comes back as a werewolf. But I remember Sir Julian well, a finer, kinder man you couldn’t wish to meet. Just the opposite of that brother of his, Silas. I’d say he was such a good man that even if he was bitten by a wolf there was too much good in him to be influenced by it. There was so much good in him.”
“The stories that you heard about me and my husband are not exaggerated. . . .”
“You mean there are things that cannot be explained by physical laws? That takes a bit of swallowing,” said the Yorkshireman.
“It’s true, nevertheless,” said La Noire. “I have seen creatures part man and part wolf. Creatures that cannot be killed by ordinary weapons. Creatures that walk when the moon is full!”
The constable looked at her a little bit uncertainly.
“Are you sure?”
“Do you think there is something hidden in this house that is not of this world?”
“No — I know that Silas has been doing it. He’s been impersonating the thing. Dressing up. He’s got a couple of cheap little crooks with him.”
“Aye, they were the men who took our uniforms! Never felt such a fool in me life! I let him know I was suspicious. I should have made sure we were in a position to deal with them first! They went behind us as if they were going to show us out, and before we knew it, thump! Thump! And there we were down here!”
“How did they get you down with those steps as bad as that?”
“They took us down as far as they could and let us roll the rest! We’re bruises from head to foot! It’s a wonder we’re not dead!”
“You’re certainly lucky there’s no bones broken,” said La Noire.
* * *
Val had made his way in through a ground floor window. He walked quietly and quickly along a musty corridor in Black Moat Grange. He was looking for stairs, stairs that would take him up to the girl. The girl in peril of her life. The girl who believed in a monstrous werewolf that had once been her father.
Val could hear La Noire talking to someone, and hear a hoarse harsh voice answering. He couldn’t make out the words but he knew that La Noire was keeping Sir Silas occupied.
Val found a staircase and made his way up. The stairs were old and they creaked a trifle. He only hoped that La Noire had got the old man’s attention to keep him sufficiently occupied. He reached a landing and made his way quietly towards a door from which the sound of sobbing was coming.
He tried the door, it was locked. He rattled the handle gently.
“Who’s there?” The voice was shrill with fear.
“It’s Stearman,” whispered Val.
“It can’t be,” said the girl. “I wasn’t able to tell you where I was.”
“It is,” assured Val, “we traced the telephone call. Please let me in.”
“I can’t,” she answered, “the door’s locked.”
“You mean they’ve locked you in?”
“Yes — I’m trapped in here!”
“Stand clear of the door,” said Val.
In all the best thrillers the hero — who is sometimes a smaller man that Val Stearman — is able to crack in a door with his shoulder. Occasionally this is so in fact, but one glance at that iron-studded, oak panel told Stearman that all he would get out of a shoulder charge would be a fractured collar bone. He backed away, dropped to his hands and knees and launched a two-footed mule kick at the lock. All the power of his thick athletic legs was in that kick. Once, twice and then there was the sound of splintering wood, as on the third impact the lock and the door parted company.
Val sprang to his feet and caught the fainting girl in his arms. She was a pretty little thing of not more than nineteen or twenty with fiery red hair and fascinating green eyes.
“Thank you,” she sobbed on to his shoulder. “I could hardly believe that anyone would come! I heard the police downstairs, and I knew that Uncle Silas was telling them I was mad, so I made enough noise on the floor for Uncle Silas to have to come and get me, and I kept myself under control and I was sure I had convinced them. Then those two men of uncle’s got behind the policemen, and before I could shout a warning they’d both been knocked unconscious. I don’t know whether he’s killed them or what he’s done with them.”
“Our first job will be to find them,” assured Val. “I know that your story is true, because I met your uncle’s Merry Men in the drive. They were dressed as policemen and tried to persuade me to back my car down a disused mine shaft! You can tell me the rest of the story as we go!”
“Then you believe me,” said the girl, “you know I’m not mad?”
“Of course you’re not mad,” said Stearman, “Silas wants your money! He either wants to frighten you to death or get you certified as insane so that he can administer the estate. It’s as simple as that. You’re as sane as I am, girl!”
She managed to smile, she smiled bravely. When she smiled her face was quite pretty.
They made their way along the corridor and down the stairs up which Val had come. There was the crash of a panel and La Noire’s sudden cry of alarm.
Val quickened his pace and a gun suddenly appeared in his hand as if by magic.
Uncle Silas, cackled insanely as he made his way along the corridor.
“Hold it right there,” ordered Stearman, “or I’ll let daylight into your head!” The old man stopped his insane, cackling laughter.
“Now just get that panel open and get it open fast,” said Stearman.
“And if I refuse?” the harsh, grating voice of the evil Silas Grafton sounded like a rasp going through corrugated Iron.
“If you refuse you’ll be a dead man, and I’ll smash the panel open with my bare hands,” said Stearman. “If you want to prolong your miserable life a few minutes longer, open it!”
“You don’t know where it is,” challenged the old man. “And you’d never break it open with your hands. You’d need tools and machinery! The panels here are strong.”’
“So am I,” said Stearman. “Now get it open, and quit stalling.” The old man shook his head.
“I refuse,” he said . . .
Stearman advanced menacingly.
“I can pretty soon make you open it,” he said darkly. “The fact that you’re an old man won’t save you.”
“How did you get here?”
“Never mind,” answered Stearman. “There’s no time for questions or answers. You’ll get the same treatment as those two scruffs of yours got when they tried to stop my car!”
“Oh, so you’ve got the better of Jack, have you?” answered the old man. “Now see if you can get the better of Jack’s master!” Before Stearman could see what was happening the old fellow pressed a lever in the panelling opposite to that through which La Noire had disappeared. The corridor at Val’s feet opened and he dropped like a stone, into black depths beneath. The girl was falling behind him. He landed on his feet with an athletic spring, and put out an arm to steady the girl. The square above slid shut again.
“It’s like something out of fiction — traps and panels all over the place. Yet it’s real, we’re here! It’s happening! That’s what takes the believing!”
“Val!” He suddenly heard La Noire calling his name.
“Darling!” He rushed across to her. . . . “I’ve found Marilyn. While you were stalling the old man I managed to break open the door and get her out. I was trying to make him open the panel he shut you in when he pulled that lever trick on me!”
“Well, now we’re all here,” said one of the policemen, “surely we can just go up the stairs and smash that panel in.”
“There’s no room at the top,” said La Noire, “and besides I’m the only one who can climb those stairs. You’d break your necks twenty times trying to get up there!”
“Better risk that than stay here,” commented Stearman grimly.
“They’ll miss us and the car, at the station,” said one of the constables.
“Our friend at the top has got a nice little solution to that one. Your car is going down the disused mine shaft with mine! Tragic accident! Probably hit each other on the way! Just bad luck the mine shaft was there.”
“That’ll take a bit of believin’ back at headquarters!”
“By the time they’ve finished investigating it’ll be too late for us! There’s no other way into this cellar — unless we could make enough noise to attract them when we heard them moving in the house we’ve had it.”
“You’ve got a point there,” conceded the policeman.
“I never thought I’d see the light o’ day again. If it hadn’t been for this young lady here —” He smiled at La Noire. “I’d like to catch up with that cowardly rat who hit me from the back! I’d show him how to fight!”
“Val has already dealt with them,” smiled La Noire.
“I hope you gave him one for me, lad,” said the constable. “My word, I’d like to meet him for five minutes when I was off duty! I’d sole him!”
“He’s been soled — and heeled!” said Val. “But that’s not solving our problem. We’ve got to find some way of getting out of this place.”
They searched the cellars from end to end. There was a labyrinth of underground rooms, but there was no means of escape that they could see.
Suddenly La Noire heard the sound of trickling water, quietly at first, then growing to louder volume.
Up above them broad moonlight opened. They saw the head of Silas Grafton framed in the aperture.
“I’m going to clean out the Aegean stables,” he announced. “Do you hear that water? Very soon it’ll flood these cellars right to the ceiling. You’ll be drowned like rats in a trap — the lot of you! Police and reporters and the poor little mad heiress!” He gave a cackling laugh. “All drown together. That’ll teach you to mind your own interfering business.”
“How will you explain the bodies?” asked Stearman calmly.
“I shan’t have to. They’ll never be found.”
“You’re mad,’ said Val.
“If I’m mad and you’re sane,” argued the old man, “it doesn’t say much for sanity, because I’ve won! I’ve beaten the five of you. It is you who are mad, trying to beat me. I’m the greatest of all.”
“He’s a melomaniac,” whispered La Noire.
“Paranoia,” returned Val, “maybe a combination of the two. That doesn’t help, though. It doesn’t matter if he’s mad or sane, the thing is that he’s got a pretty good chance of drowning us. Unless we can keep him talking until there’s a chance to swim up through that hole,” said Val.
“I can’t swim,” confessed Marilyn.
“Neither can I,” said one of the constables.
“That’s not going to help much,” said Val. “One I might have been able to support,” said Val, “but not two . . . not for any length of time, anyway. ‘That water will be icy cold.”
“It is!” said La Noire. The water was already swirling around their ankles, rising with noticeable speed. The mad Silas Grafton was looking down at them, laughing insanely, evilly.
“It’ll soon all be mine, my dear,” he said to the girl. “All your dear father’s money will come to his loving brother Silas. And how I shall enjoy it! All the more for having won it by the skill of my brain! Instead of having come by it honestly. I enjoy it so much more when I have taken it from you than if it had been left to me in the first place. Did you enjoy my little werewolf jokes? You always seemed to enjoy them?”
“So it was you all the time?” cried the girl.
“Of course! You don’t really believe in such nonsense do you? There aren’t really such things as werewolves! What a stroke of good fortune for me when poor Julian was killed on that hunting trip in Transylvania! What a wonderful opportunity! I fed your juvenile imagination, my dear child! Nurtured it like a tender plant. Filled it with stories of the Transylvanian hills and the wolf hunts and the things that roam by night, and the undead, and at last the seeds of doubt began to take root. The seeds of doubt began to spring up. Until you knew that your father had been killed, and then you were sure he had been bitten by a werewolf . . . half man and half beast . . . not living, not dead, and that one day he would come back. One day when the moon was full he would return to his old home, and of course, with the werewolf in possession of him he could not tell those he loved from those he hated! You feared that snuffling sound under your door — like the muzzle of a great beast of prey on the trail, on the scent, and that shadowy half man, half beast. I was behind it all. How I enjoyed seeing the fear in your eyes.”
“He’s a sadist as well as a paranoic,” said Val.
“Can you get him with a quick shot?” asked La Noire.
“It won’t do us much good, this water is not only coming in, it’s swirling fast. Once it takes us off our feet we shall never be able to get through that opening, anyway.”
“Couldn’t we lift one of the policemen up?”
“Too high,” said Val. “If we all sat on each other’s shoulders we couldn’t reach. We’d be drowned long before.”
The cackling voice of the old man went on.
“Is the water nice and warm? Do you find it pleasant?” He was laughing again, coherent thought seemed to have left him.
“Fancy believing in werewolves!” he said. “There’s a full moon tonight, it’s just come up. It’s a late rising moon. But don’t worry, I don’t think werewolves can cross running water!” He laughed again with cruel insanity at his own joke. There was the sound of footsteps above their heads. Padding footsteps that could have been made by the claws of a beast, and there was a savage bestial animal growl. . . then a scream from Silas Grafton that sounded as though all the devils in hell were wrenching his soul from his living body.
“No, Julian! No! Julian! It’s not true! I made it up! I made it up! It’s not true — Julian, no! No!” Another savage growl, and then a crash. Silas Grafton was flung through the aperture to land in the shallow water at Val Stearman’s feet. There was a sickening crunch as the body hit the cellar floor, for the water was not yet deep enough to break the impact, and he had not landed as athletically as the others.
He looked up, and there framed in the aperture was the shaggy outline of a thing, half man, half beast . . . half human, half wolf.
The savage bestial thing turned its face partly towards them, and La Noire, with her uncanny eyesight, thought there seemed to be a strange familiarity in the features of the wolfman. He looked vaguely like Silas. . . .
It must be Julian,” said La Noire.
“It’s my father,” said the girl. “O God, what an ironic twist of fate! All these years he’s been trying to frighten me to death by saying that my father was a werewolf — that he’d been bitten by one of those dreadful things on his hunting trip, and that he would come back and kill us! He deliberately made up that story, and it’s true!”
“I don’t think it is,” said Stearman, “not completely. I think your father has been one of those who could not rest but not now. He did not come to kill any of the innocent. He came to save you from Silas, and even though the evil power of the werewolf has taken over his mortal body, his soul is still the soul of a decent man. His body may have been blackened by the taint of the werewolf, but his soul still shines.”
“He’s going,” said the girl.
The water was knee high and rising.
They clung together, wondering and waiting. A rope came snaking through the aperture above their heads.
“I’m the heaviest,” said Val, “I’ll see if it will bear me.”
“But the thing up there!” gasped the girl.
Stearman patted his pocket where he kept the big Browning, the big Browning that was loaded with silver.
“Don’t worry,” he said. He was up the rope like a sailor. Hand over hand, almost as fast as most men could walk, the rippling muscles of his chest and shoulders hauled him upwards with ease. His head and shoulders came up over the parapet. He seized the edge of the aperture and hauled himself through. The wolf man had secured the rope to a beam. He looked at Val with eyes in which fury and a plea for mercy were blended in a look that Stearman could never forget.
The thing sank to its knees, the great claws clasped above its head. A low guttural growl escaped it. It half rose and sprang towards Val and then checked in mid-spring. It rolled in some kind of mental agony from one side of the corridor to the other. The sane, rational soul of Sir Julian was begging Stearman to release it from the horror of the werewolf body.
Stearman levelled the big Browning and fired just once. It was instantaneous. The large silver bullet took the wolfman through the heart. He gave one spasmodic jerk and then lay as still as death.
As he watched its stiffening limbs Stearman saw a weird metamorphosis crossing its features. The bestial, scowling savagery had gone. The face and the body were human again. There was a look of great peace in the closing eyes, and Stearman knew that the soul of Julian Grafton had gone to a very different eternal resting place from the soul of his evil brother Silas.
He paused to see if the water was still flooding into the cellar below and hauled up first the girl Marilyn and then La Noire. After that he went down to assist the two policemen. By the time he himself came up from the now empty cellar, the water was at chest height and swirling dangerously.
Willing hands hauled him through the opening.
“It’s a funny thing,” said Stearman, as he looked down into the swirling hole that might have been their grave, “what a casual phone call can start, isn’t it?”
BACK TO THE ARCHIVE